New CableCARD tools loosen the grip of DRM

As I noted on Friday, Microsoft has finally released the tool needed to make any Windows 7 PC capable of using a digital cable tuner. They also released the required firmware for ATI CableCARD tuners via Windows Update. The Windows Media Center Team Blog has a full write-up on the Digital Cable Advisor tool and how it works, complete with screenshots.

I have two completely separate Windows 7 systems here that use ATI cable tuners. One system has a single tuner, the other has two tuners. In addition, each system has one or more over-the-air (OTA) and/or analog cable tuners. As of last night, I have done some testing and can report that everything works as promised. The biggest benefit is that many programs recorded on a CableCARD tuner can now be freely copied and shared.

Initially, I was puzzled that the Digital Cable Advisor wasn’t showing up in the Media Center Extras Gallery. The solution turned out to be pretty simple. The code arrives courtesy of Media Center’s download option, which also updates TV guide data. On one system, it appeared after a day and a half when the guide did its automatic update. On another system, which had never been set up for TV recording, there was no Extras Gallery at all. I fixed that by doing a manual download. From the main Media Center screen, choose Tasks, then Settings, General, and finally Automatic Download Options. You’ll find a Download Now button there. After the download was complete, the Extras Gallery appeared and the Digital Cable Advisor was available.


I ran this tool on the HP Slimline computer in the living room that I plan to use as our new main Media Center PC. It passed with flying colors. Meanwhile, back in my office, the other two PCs were busily recording programs from their attached cable tuners. Previously, anything recorded using the DCT was copy-protected, which meant that trying to use the Shared Libraries feature in Windows 7 would fail on content that was never intended to be copy-protected. Here, for example, is the listing for a copy of Late Night with David Letterman, recorded on a DCT before the updated firmware was made available:


If you try to play that program from a remote PC, you get a warning:


If you click Continue, the playback fails with this error:


But after applying the update, I was able to use the ATI CableCARD tuner in the office to record programs from sources such as high-definition broadcasts on local network affiliates and also from cable sources that don’t use copy protection, such as C-SPAN and MSNBC and play them back successfully over the network. Playback was smooth, glitch-free, and everything worked exactly as expected.

Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), the new firmware and new rules have no effect on previously recorded programs. If you recorded a program last week or last month or last year on a cable tuner, it is copy-protected, and there is no way to remove that DRM. But going forward, sources that are marked Copy Freely will work as they should. Also, high-def premium channels such as HBO and Showtime are still copy-protected and cannot be played back except on the original PC where they were recorded, or on an extender device such as an Xbox 360 connected to that PC.

Still, this is a giant step forward for Media Center and a major cause for celebration. I’ll be discussing my Media Center systems in much more detail over the next few weeks and months and am especially looking forward to testing the new Ceton digital cable tuners when they are finally available.

4 thoughts on “New CableCARD tools loosen the grip of DRM

  1. Not to get too personal but what does your cable company charge you for the cablecard tuners? Here in the PacNW I have wave cable and pay 50$/month for just extended basic. I am assuming you pay the base rate for your cable tier and then an ‘add-on’ price for each tuner, is this so?

  2. Hi:

    I have a Dell XPS 420 system with an ATI Digital Tuner. I have a lot of recorded programs. Does anyone have a clue whether these programs will still work if I upgrade to Windows 7? (not a clean install; I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work…just an upgrade)…any help appreciated; Kirk

    1. Yes, I’ve done several in-place upgrades and old programs continue to play back. You are correct that old programs recorded on your CableCARD tuner will not play back if you do a clean install.

  3. Les, according to my bill I am being charged $1.50 per month for two CableCards. It appears on my bill as a TiVo2 card, ironically.

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